Sun, May 11, 2003 - Page 24 News List

Minnesota Wild, Anaheim Mighty Ducks defy the odds

AP , ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA

Oddsmakers could have a tough time declaring an underdog when the Minnesota Wild play the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the Western Conference final.

Two out-of-nowhere clubs -- one that's up for sale by Disney and another in just its third season with the league's lowest payroll -- are four wins away from the Stanley Cup finals.

The Mighty Ducks, who knocked off powers Dallas and Detroit, and the Wild, who beat Colorado and Vancouver, meet Saturday in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series.

It's a matchup that nobody could've predicted.

Dallas had the best record in the West. Detroit was looking to defend its Stanley Cup title. Colorado, the 2001 champions, had goalie Patrick Roy and a bevy of prolific scorers. Vancouver was big and bruising with an immensely talented top line.

But instead it's sixth-seeded Minnesota and No. 7 Anaheim which, until this year, had won only one playoff series.

"We've been anything but a joke for a long time," Ducks coach Mike Babcock said. "We've been one of the best teams in the NHL since Christmas, and we've obviously been one of the best teams in the league in the playoffs. That's why we're still playing."

Just weeks ago, both teams looked like they'd only be in the playoffs for a short time.

But Anaheim swept the Red Wings. Minnesota, making its first-ever playoff appearance, rallied from a 3-1 deficit to eliminate Colorado.

And the Wild did it again with a Game 7 victory on Thursday at Vancouver, becoming the first team in NHL history to overcome two 3-1 deficits to win in the same postseason.

A few days earlier, the Ducks -- buoyed by the brilliant goaltending of Jean-Sebastien Giguere -- closed out their series with the Stars in six games.

"The only people who are surprised are the people who haven't been paying attention," Babcock said.

Giguere caught everyone's attention with his 8-2 playoff record and a 1.60 goals-against average. He's stopped 354 of 373 shots.

The Wild have had solid goaltending in the postseason as well with Manny Fernandez (2.23 GAA) and Dwayne Roloson (2.46), who took turns playing hero in the first two rounds. Minnesota was without a team for seven seasons when the North Stars and despised owner Norm Green departed for Dallas.

NHL expansion gave the self-proclaimed state of hockey another team to root for in 2000, when coach Jacques Lemaire brought his neutral-zone trap and disciplined, defensive style to the Wild.

The first two seasons were predictably rough, but the Wild got off to a 8-2-1 start and never quit winning with 21-year-old forward Marian Gaborik emerging as a star and Roloson and Fernandez solid in the net.

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